A Tale of Real-Life Heroes From Another Time

George Butler’s The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition, from a screenplay by Caroline Alexander and Joseph Dorman, based on the book by Caroline Alexander and narrated by Liam Neeson, should move you even if you’re not familiar with the extensive literature and museum exhibition on the subject produced over the past few years. Who is this Ernest Shackleton, and why is he deservedly legendary? Curiously, he can be said to have failed in his primary goal of crossing the Antarctic continent on foot, the South Pole having already been reached by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who narrowly beat the ill-fated British explorer Robert Falcon Scott. Scott’s legend, commemorated in Charles Frend’s Scott of the Antarctic (1948), is that of a heroic death. Shackleton’s, by contrast, is that of a heroic struggle against death, not only for himself but even more for all his crew members. Indeed, Shackleton’s is the story of an adventurer who immediately gave up any hope of personal glory to concentrate on rescuing the men he had led into an almost certain deathtrap. Finding themselves completely cut off from what passes for civilization in the Antarctic region, Shackleton and his men managed two perilous sea voyages and one land passage over unexplored mountainous terrain to reach help. At any moment, the entire expedition could have vanished in the icy depths. Without leaving a trace.

Much of the film is brought to life by the extraordinary on-the-spot movie and still footage recorded by an expert Australian photographer named James Francis Hurley, who had accompanied previous Antarctic explorations. The salvaging of much of his work under the most desperate conditions was almost as remarkable a feat as the total rescue. If Shackleton and his companions had been fictional characters, they would have been worthy of Tolstoy in their journey into the depths of the soul. Instead, they’ve become real-life heroes to inspire us in our current time of trial.

Mr. Butler and his colleagues have fashioned a coherent narrative by combining the original footage in black-and-white with color footage from contemporary cinematographers of the same area. The narration by Mr. Neeson and voices representing Shackleton and his men fill in the rest of the gaps. There is a great deal of psychological analysis of men under the extreme stresses of endless ice, violent seas and apocalyptic storms. Their feats of improvisation, navigation and sheer endurance make most adventure stories seem picayune by comparison. In fact, I doubt that any movie, fiction or nonfiction, released this year will pack the emotional power of Endurance.

As it is, Shackleton seems to have become a posthumous influence in the business community for his extraordinary demonstration of management skills. Morgan Stanley’s sponsorship of the film seems to function as a kind of seal of approval. Yet I wonder if Shackleton as a contemporary C.E.O. would lay off workers to sweeten his balance sheet in this time of crisis. Would he not instead choose to cut his own enormous salary before he threw his workers out in the street? I simply ask because I do not know. And the ending is as bitterly ironic as one would wish before or after Sept. 11.

Life Goes On

Arik Kaplun’s Yana’s Friends was shown about a year ago at a local Israeli film festival. At the time, I wondered aloud why in a city like New York, with such a huge Jewish population, Israeli films have had such rough sledding commercially. I never imagined that Yana’s Friends would one day turn out to be so timely for all New Yorkers-and indeed, all Americans. The story takes place in Israel in 1991, at the time of the Gulf War with Iraq. Yana (Evelyn Kaplun) is a recent immigrant from Russia, who finds herself pregnant and abandoned by her husband, and forced to support herself and her coming baby while sharing an apartment with Eli (Nir Levi), an Israeli wedding photographer in his 20′s with shamelessly voyeuristic proclivities and loose morals. Yana’s predicament inspires Eli to use her as a subject for a documentary, but when the threat from Saddam Hussein’s poison-gas missiles drive Yana and Eli into the same sealed bedroom, romantic flames engulf them despite the slightly comic encumbrance of their gas masks.

Mr. Kaplun provides a subplot involving another recent immigrant couple who display an entrepreneurial ingenuity by exploiting the wife’s wheelchair-confined, catatonic grandfather to attract a steady stream of coins from pitying pedestrians. When the grandfather and a street musician start a brawl over sidewalk space, the story takes an unexpected turn. What the film tells us is that life goes madly on despite the most fearsome threats to our safety and security. It is something the Israelis can teach us.

The Last Good Romantic Comedy

Peter Chelsom’s Serendipity, from a screenplay by Marc Klein, is a movie I found myself liking more than perhaps I should. Its plot bears a superficial resemblance to Nora Ephron’s Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and You’ve Got Mail (1998) and the glorious granddaddy of them all, Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner (1940), in that it takes almost a whole movie for two people who are meant for each other to discover that they are indeed meant for each other. The mechanics differ in each instance, as does the level of exasperation. In this respect, Serendipity does not get off to a good start.

Jonathan Trager (John Cusack) and Sara Thomas (Kate Beckinsale) meet cute enough in Bloomingdale’s during Christmas time, share dessert at Serendipity and end up skating around Wollman Rink together, which is about par for a Manhattan romance, even though the film was shot in Toronto. Though Jonathan and Sara are both entangled with other people, as we shall see, Jonathan seems more anxious to continue the relationship than Sara is. An imbalance is immediately created by Jonathan’s increasing desperation and Sara’s curious detachment in the name of fate.

Though I have always liked Ms. Beckinsale in more straightforward parts, her Sara here displays an edge of complacency as she establishes the terms of their being reunited on a series of ridiculously improbable coincidences. A few years pass, and both Jonathan and Sara are preparing to marry other people, and here the first variation on a familiar theme falls into place. Usually, the Other Man and the Other Woman are shown to be too ridiculous for words as marital options. Indeed, one sometimes wonders what attracted our hero and heroine to these second choices in the first place. Not so here. Bridget Moynahan’s Halley Buchanan suffers real emotional pain when she realizes that Jonathan is about to reject her for someone else. John Corbett’s Lars is somewhat stranger as Sara’s potential husband, with his comically outlandish shenanigans as a New Age musician, but deep down he seems possessed of both an off-beat virility and an eccentric sense of humor. Mr. Chelton and Mr. Klein are less successful getting Lars off the stage than they are in disposing of Halley, but the point is that they don’t demean either loser in the game of love.

The most important variation in the seemingly familiar theme of serendipity in Serendipity is that both Jonathan and Sara are different people when they finally defy all the odds to meet a second time; both have been deepened and ennobled by their quests. And along the way, they have enriched their friendships with their best friends, Jonathan with Jeremy Piven’s Dean Kansky and Sara with Molly Shannon’s Eve. Their exchanges of dialogue are crisp; their feelings for each other are unselfish. Ultimately, the carefree spirit of Serendipity carries the day, and it is sad to think that we may never see a comedy like this ever again, at least one supposedly set in New York City.

A Must-See

Double Bill

Vincente Minnelli’s An American in Paris (1951) and The Bandwagon (1953) are currently gracing the Paris Theater, and you still have time to catch these two tuneful exercises in terpsichorean magic in spanking new prints. Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron do the honors to the music and lyrics of George and Ira Gershwin in the former, with Oscar Levat, Nina Foch and Georges Guétary in support. A curiously somber screenplay by Alan Jay Lerner fits in with Minnelli’s own strikingly downbeat directorial temperament in a supposedly joyous genre.

In The Bandwagon, Fred Astaire supplies a lyrical accompaniment to Minnelli’s malaise with the Howard Dietz–Arthur Schwarz ode to loneliness, “By Myself.” Astaire and Cyd Charisse are a somewhat chemically lukewarm dancing couple next to the heat of the Kelly-Caron pairing in Paris. Astaire is more congenial in his numbers with Jack Buchanan, like “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plans,” and with the effervescent Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant in “That’s Entertainment.” Fabray and Levant also double as on-screen representations of the film’s sassy screenwriters, Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

To make a long review short, An American in Paris and The Bandwagon are two of the beauties of the second golden age of the American musical, in the 1940′s and 1950′s-the first being led by Busby Berkeley and the team of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the 30′s. Astaire himself bridges the two eras in his ageless fashion.